Covid-19 and the Old Gods

From the very beginning there was something disturbing about the government’s daily virus briefings. Something I couldn’t quite identify, something dreamlike and other-worldly. They reminded me of something but I couldn’t recall exactly what.

It was Sunak’s first appearance that broke the spell and dragged an old memory to the surface. His suit was too tight, deliberately so in the manner of a dodgy estate agent. Borges’ short story Ragnarök now came to mind, a tale in which the old gods make their long-awaited return, but in a degenerate form. With a masterstroke of imagination Borges portrays them as gangsters and spivs: ‘The clothes they wore were not of decorous and honest poverty, but rather of the criminal luxury of the Underworld’s gambling dens and houses of ill-repute.’

Borges’ old gods have lost the power of speech -‘Centuries of a feral life of flight had atrophied that part of them that was human.’ Ours utter garbled lies, half-truths and platitudes; each flanked by high priests in the form of ‘experts’, charged with rendering intelligible their masters’ clucking (Borges’ term in Hurley’s translation…). Sidelong shifty glances are exchanged between them as each struggles to stay on-message; watch the eyes, always watch the eyes as they betray the shitstricken uncertainty of those attempting to conceal blind panic.

Borges’ old gods, ‘cunning, ignorant and cruel’, are destroyed because their ancient doctrines no longer hold sway. Ours panic because they must destroy their own doctrines in order to survive: spending, borrowing, shrinking the state, punishing the indolent, poor, handicapped and alien – all these touchstones of spite disguised as ‘prudence’ must be abandoned.

In Borges’ fictional dream his old gods are destroyed by revolvers. Ours await a gentler, but no less ruthless, political fate.

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